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Friday, November 1, 2013

Eco-Brick Bench

            Introducing new ideas, or projects in a community is very difficult. There are so many facets that determine whether or not something is going to be successful that there is no clear indicator of how something is going to work until you try it. A good example of this is seen in the usage and production of ecological-bricks. What makes them an interesting example is that they are a relatively new idea in Paraguay, but their creations taps into a common cultural norm of reutilizing things. Paraguayans are constantly finding ways to reuse things that I would consider garbage. Got rotting boards in your house? No problem, use them to make a fence. Some shelf or door break? Get some small gage wire and rig it back up. I've even seen people deconstruct their house piece by piece only to rebuild it somewhere else. A lot of this has to do with cost and availability of materials, and yes while many things are no ubiquitous, the decades of self-reliance still prioritizes reusing stuff as much stuff as you possibly can.
             Eco-bricks are pretty simple to make. Basically you fill plastic bottles with plastic bags, wrappers, or paper products until the bottle is densely packed to the point of being hard as brick. Given the rise of plastics, especially grocery bags, soda bottles, and candy wrappers, there is a plethora of these materials all over Paraguay. The sheer amount greatly contributes to the growing problem with trash management not just Paraguay, but many other developing countries. With growing accessibility to things like plastic bottle cokes, and Nestle candy wrappers a there is a big spike in the amount of garbage individual families produce that is compounded across the country. It is amazing how much trash I produce individually. It used to be that I could fill a bag of garbage per week, but ever since I started making eco-bricks, my trash productions have been halved. Over the course of nine months I filled ten bricks. The school was able to make 49 from leftover garbage, papers, and trash thrown in the streets in just three weeks. In short these bricks are not only effective, but also easy to make and free to produce.
            The idea originated from Guatemala where an environmental NGO started, recognizing the rising costs of building materials and the ever-growing multitudes of trash, started filling up empty plastic bottles to use in building schools, benches, and other small buildings ( By layering the bricks, setting them in wire fencing, and coating them in cement you get yourself a pretty stable small structure. The costs are virtually nothing, helps reduce waste production, and cleans the streets. There is, however, some debate concerning the structural integrity of the bricks. If they are not densely packed then they're susceptible to crumbling. Obviously the solution is to make sure they are all in good shape before hand, but when doing this with children you're dealing with attention spans that can be shifted at the drop a hat. While from what I've seen, kids are very enthusiastic to fill up the bottles, but less inclined to pack them to capacity. Nevertheless, given the plan at the school next to my house was to build a small bench; we could overlook a lot of these less than ideal full bricks.
            The most basic design Peace Corps Paraguay has developed requires 28 bricks, a bag of cement, and about 20 regular bricks. You can buy a regular brick for a nickel, but cement costs about $12 per 120 lbs bag. That is a bit pricy, but still not over the top expensive. Bricks made in Paraguay are not that much different then bricks made anywhere else. Heavy clay soils are mixed with some chemicals, dried, and baked in a giant kiln. The problem is how fragile they are. The cheapest bricks will break if they fall from a height of a foot. It is a very labor-intensive process that has to be done with care. Eco-bricks, while useful, do still need to be flanked by regular bricks so they structure can better hold its form. In our case we decided to make a small 28 eco-brick bench, so setting the structure in wire before hand wasn't super important but building a support structure was.
            When I got to the school the day we were to build the benches we picked out a location and began digging a small trench to layer normal bricks as the foundation. We then mixed cement and started building up the bench with four layers of eco-bricks of seven across with regular bricks on the flanks. We decided to leave one side of the bench open to better demonstrate what we did. I left the morning classes feeling good what we accomplished. In the afternoon I thought all we would have to do is smooth out the cement, and fill in a few holes. When I sauntered up to the school in the afternoon, however, I saw that all students were there filling more eco-bricks with the teachers. I was informed that the bench was off center, and they wanted to extend it. I was thrilled by the enthusiasm, and quickly started digging the extension. After several hours, and 31 eco bricks later, we had our bench. We determined that having the top layer of regular bricks is a more effective way to encase the eco-bricks, and it made for a more stable seat. Ironically the extension made the bench more off center than before, but the teachers seemed thrilled.

            I have no idea whether the eco-brick bench will lead to construction of similar things in the community. What I do know is that this new idea inspired the students and teachers to work independently of me in finishing up a project I helped educate them about. It not only temporarily reduced the trash consumption of the school, but also added a new place to sit for virtually nothing. I don't see Paraguay consuming fewer plastics in the future, which leads me to believe that this type of project will continue to have legs moving forward.  Paraguayans have an inherent comprehension of how to build things and how to reutilize things. Tapping into those engrained cultural norms can be a very powerful tool in introducing new ideas no how big or small.

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